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Onward, Olympia -- to the bank!

The week ahead will find state legislators trying to wrap their bills in the budget -- or kiss them goodbye.
It's budget time in Olympia

It's budget time in Olympia Photo Credit: 401(K)2013

After a month spent pouring over plans and proposals, Olympia picks up the tempo on Monday, the first workday following Friday’s important deadline for introducing policy legislation.

Practically speaking, Friday marked the end of ACT ONE for the 2013 legislative session. During that first policy-focused act, lawmakers were free to submit proposals for practically anything — to introduce some new policy, or axe an old one. In the weeks to come, the focus switches to moving existing proposals through the two houses of state government — and, along the way, figuring out how to pay for them all.

ACT TWO, beginning today (Monday, Feb. 25), is the budget part of the session. During this phase, any legislator who wants to change any law will first have to convince fellow lawmakers that the change will actually have an impact on the state’s bottom line.

Some bills are innately tied to the budget, and action on them is a given. Both education and transportation bills, for example, arguably the two biggest issues of the year, come with huge price tags — and budget impact. Accordingly, proposals for both will likely keep appearing as lawmakers try to craft a winning combination of services without breaking the bank.

Other bills, however, clearly aren't tied to the bottom line. Two good examples, which passed out of committee just last week, are bills to require universal background checks for gun purchases and to place controls on spy drones. Both measures propose changes to existing law. Both survived last Friday’s policy cutoff. If they hadn't, their sponsors would likely have had a hard time introducing them during this budget-focused phase, since neither has a real price tag associated with it and neither generates any revenue. In other words, gun and drone control bills don’t affect the budget.

Of course, this is Olympia — and politics. Which means there's always a grey area.

The grey area in this case is the space for bills that don't have an obvious budget impact, or at least not much of one, but whose sponsors are willing to disguise them as budget bills and trot them out for consideration.

Marijuana, for example, is expected to make Washington State a lot of money. Some marijuana bills, like a recent proposal to tax medical marijuana at levels similar to recreational marijuana, clearly affect the budget. But just being associated with the topic might be enough for other bills — say, a proposal to relax rules on where to site the not-yet-licensed pot stores — to pass muster.

The judges in this great budget fashion contest are party leaders and the heads of the budget committees in each house, who hold particular sway. Although the latter don't technically wield veto power, party leaders have listened in the past when they've spoken out on individual bills.

Generally speaking, the further we get into the session, the harder it is to introduce a new proposal, and the more political capital it takes to get anyone to listen. Where there's a will there's often a way, but in this year's deeply divided government, and especially in the wake of Friday's ruffling of Senate feathers over a slick backroom block of two popular Democrat bills that will may be in very short supply.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

Tom James has helped cover the 2013 state legislative session for Crosscut through the University of Washington journalism program. He also writes for Crosscut on other subjects. Born in Seattle and raised in Kitsap, Tom worked for the Kitsap Navy News and Central Kitsap Reporter before heading to the UW for a double-major in journalism and economics, which he hopes to finish in 2014.


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